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People who rely on conservative media for COVID-19 news are less informed, more likely to believe conspiracy theories, study finds

People who relied on conservative media and social media in early March for information about COVID-19  were more likely to hold inaccurate beliefs about the potential seriousness of the illness and about how to prevent it from spreading.

President Donald Trump participating in a Fox News Channel “virtual town hall” on the coronavirus response, with Fox anchor Bill Hemmer, on March 24.
President Donald Trump participating in a Fox News Channel “virtual town hall” on the coronavirus response, with Fox anchor Bill Hemmer, on March 24.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

People who relied on conservative media and social media in early March for information about the new coronavirus infection (COVID-19) were more likely to hold inaccurate beliefs about the potential seriousness of the illness and about how to prevent it from spreading.

They were also more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the virus, including the bogus belief that people within government health agencies were exaggerating the danger from COVID-19 in order to bring down Donald Trump’s presidency.

Those are the troubling findings from a study published last week by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Because both information and misinformation can affect behavior, we all ought to be doing our part not only to increase essential knowledge about SARS-CoV-2, but also to interdict the spread of deceptions about its origins, prevention, and effects,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the study’s authors and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, in a released statement.

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“All forms of media should ask, Are our audiences better prepared to deal with this coronavirus as a result of our work or is their trust in us endangering them and their communities?” she adds.

Previous research has revealed that Americans’ political leanings appear to inform their views on COVID-19. A series of national polls taken in March found, for example, that Republicans were less worried than Democrats that they or someone in their family would be exposed to the virus, less likely to consider COVID-19 a major health threat, and more likely to approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

The current study looked beyond political affiliation, however. It found a correlation between the views people held about the coronavirus and the sources of media they consume.

How the study was done

For the study, Jamieson and her co-author, psychologist Dolores Albarracin of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, analyzed phone-survey data collected from a representative sample of 1,008 Americans, ranging in age from 18 to 80-plus. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of the respondents were Democrats, while 34 percent were Republicans and 13 percent were political independents.

The survey was taken during the first week of March — just after the U.S. reported its first coronavirus death and a week before Trump declared a national emergency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended no gatherings of more than 50 people.

The survey’s questions were designed to test the accuracy of the respondents’ understanding about the coronavirus — specifically about its lethality compared to the seasonal flu and the need for hand washing and social distancing to prevent the virus from spreading. The survey also asked respondents for their opinions about misinformation about the virus, including conspiracy theories.

The survey then measured where the respondents got their COVID-19 information. On a scale of 0 (no information) to 5 (a lot of information), the respondents reported how much information they received from the following:

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  • Mainstream print sources (the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal)
  • Mainstream broadcast sources (ABC News, CBS News, NBC News)
  • Conservative sources (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Brietbart News, One American News, the Drudge Report)
  • Liberal sources (MSNBC, Bill Maher, the Huffington Post)
  • News aggregators (Google News, Yahoo News)
  • Social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube).

Key findings

The study found that people who relied mostly on mainstream print and broadcast media for news about COVID-19 tended to be better informed (and less misinformed) about the virus. They were more likely to say — correctly — that COVID-19 is more deadly than the seasonal flu and that regular hand washing and avoiding contact with symptomatic people help to prevent its spread.

People who got most of their information from conservative media or from social media were, on the other hand, more likely to believe that the Chinese had created the coronavirus as a bioweapon (there is no evidence of this) and that officials within the CDC were overblowing the health risk of COVID-19 to damage President Trump (again, no evidence).

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They were also more likely to believe — wrongly — that taking vitamin C can help prevent the infection.

The study also found that people who used Google News or other web aggregators were less likely to believe in the effectiveness of hand washing and social distancing.

Significant gaps in knowledge

This survey was done in early March, so its findings may or may not accurately reflect how media sources affect Americans’ current views about COVID-19. Also, the study was observational, so it can’t prove that the news sources were directly responsible for the respondents’ knowledge (or lack of it) regarding the virus.

Still, the findings are disconcerting, to say the least.  Overall, the survey found that greater than one in five of its respondents (23 percent) believed that China had launched the coronavirus as a bioweapon. “This theory was floated by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) on Fox News in mid-February, endorsed by Steven Bannon, former advisor to President Donald Trump, peddled in the conservative Washington Times, and touted by conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh who said, ‘It probably is a ChicCom laboratory experiment that is in the process of being weaponized,’” Jamieson and her colleagues point out.

Almost as many of the respondents (19 percent) believed that it was probably or definitely true that the CDC was using the virus to undermine the Trump presidency.

Also, an astounding one in 10 people (10 percent) said they believed it was probably or definitely true that the U.S. government had created the virus itself.

Correcting the falsehoods

“The gaps in the public’s background knowledge that we identified should alert public health officials to the ongoing need for effective communication of needed information long before a crisis,” write Jamieson and Albarracin.

Fact-checking needs to be done by health officials and others carefully, they add, because correcting misinformation and conspiracy theories “may do more harm than good by inadvertently increasing awareness of the problematic claim.” The researchers suggest that efforts to correct conspiracy theories be undertaken only when surveys show such ideas are believed by at least 10 percent of the public.

Jamieson and Albarracin also urge health officials to make sure accurate information about COVID-19 appears in conservative media, particularly since those venues tend to have older audiences who are at increased risk of developing COVID-19 related complications.

One way of doing that is to get credible health experts to do interviews with the conservative media as much as possible. “This strategy was exemplified,” the researchers write, “by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who on March 11th on Fox News responded to Sean Hannity’s request to compare the seasonal flu to the coronavirus by noting, ‘The mortality for seasonal flu is 0.1 (percent)’ and the coronavirus is ‘10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu. You gotta make sure that people understand that.’”

FMI:  The Annenberg study was published in the peer-reviewed Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, where it can be read in full.